Kayaking Alaska in the Exxon Valdez’ Shadow

The massive oil spill devastated the Prince William Sound shore 21 years ago; now the wildlife and vistas are making a comeback

The wrinkled Blackstone Glacier absorbs every color of the spectrum except blue, so the crevasses are a brilliant, Gatorade-like aquamarine. (Megan Gambino)

Foamy salt water sloshes up onto the little trawler’s windshield, its wipers working feverishly to keep the view clear for captains Pete Heddell and Adam Tietz. The two men bob in their seats, rigged with springs to absorb the shock of the waves, while eight of us—three friends from Anchorage, two from Portland, one from Chicago and my husband and myself from Washington, D.C.—sit on benches facing each other. Gnawing on beef jerky, we alternate our gazes between a map of Blackstone Bay, in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and the actual bay outside the foggy windows.

“A minke whale!” exclaims Heddell. We all quickly look starboard and see a black dorsal fin slink out of the water. “You know,” he adds. “They sleep with one eye open.”

Whittier, a port city about an hour’s drive southeast of Anchorage, on Alaska’s Kenai (pronounced KEY-nigh) Peninsula, is isolated, to put it mildly. Before the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2.5-mile passage from Portage to Whittier through Maynard Mountain, opened to car traffic in June 2000, the only way in or out of Whittier by land was a passenger train that ran a dozen times a day. According to the 2000 census, 182 people live in Whittier—most under the same roof, a monstrosity of an apartment building once used as a military barrack. Yet, the gateway to the Sound has been a natural draw for tourists. In town, there is a humble strip of tour outfitters, gift shops, restaurants with outdoor seating, even a fudge shop, though it all seems too dainty for the bristly port, like a bulldog wearing a pink bow. The real beauty of the place lies outside of town, at sea, where deep fjords wind into steep cliffs, tidewater glaciers dangle above crisp, cold bays and sharp peaks rise from rocky beaches.

Tourists can experience Prince William Sound from cruise liners and daylong glacier cruises, but we opted for the least-insulated mode of transportation, kayaks. We hired Honey Charters, which provides transportation for kayakers as well as general sightseeing and wildlife-viewing trips, to ferry us, our kayaks and an embarrassing amount of camping supplies, including two camp stoves, smoked Alaskan salmon, a soggy carton of eggs and a handle of tequila, to a beach campsite, about a 40-minute boat ride from Whittier. Three days and 22 miles of kayaking later, the outfit would pick us up at one of three designated beaches, whichever one, weather permitting, we could make it to.

Heddell bends our course around a raft of sea otters floating on their backs and toward a beach with a spectacular view of Beloit and Blackstone Glaciers. Once aground, we form a line, clouds of pesky sand flies swarming around our heads, toss our gear to shore and wave goodbye to our fair captains. The bay is known for its drastic tides, and having a tide table for the region on hand, we know we are in store for one of the highest of the month at 1:04 a.m. The fact that the night sky doesn’t get darker than twilight but for a few hours certainly helps us stay awake, and around 12:30 a.m., when it becomes obvious that our tents will be swallowed by the sea, we move them to higher ground in the thick of the trees.

The next morning, we familiarize ourselves, on shore, with the wet exit—an acrobatic move that allows kayakers to free themselves from a capsized kayak—and set out. We weave through a minefield of icebergs ranging from a softball to, I suspect, a sedan, in size. After all, only the tip, or about 10 percent, of an iceberg is visible above the surface. On the largest one we see, about a mile out from where the snout of Beloit Glacier meets the bay, several harbor seals are resting. A few seals in the water create a perimeter around the iceberg, occasionally flipping and splashing to mark their territory. A seal tails one of our boats, and when it realizes that I, in turn, am tailing it, its silky wet head pokes up, and then rises even farther, like a synchronized swimmer boosting as much of her body out of the water as possible.

From Beloit, we paddle west to Blackstone Glacier. The wrinkled glacier absorbs every color of the spectrum except blue, so the crevasses are a brilliant, Gatorade-like aquamarine. Not wanting to get dangerously close to the calving glacier, we admire it from a nearby beach. The thunderous sound of breaking chunks of ice is on a slight delay from the sight of them crumbling. We watch a few plummet into the water and then paddle the 4.5 miles back to camp. As we ply the last half mile, we collect tiny icebergs under the bungee cords on the decks of our kayaks. Later, on the beach, basking in the evening sun, we turn the glacial ice into glacieritas.

I knew going into this trip that the scenery would leave me punch-drunk. But the timing of my adventure, nearly three months after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill began, gave me sobering thoughts of the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill lingering beneath Prince William Sound’s beautiful veneer. Some 11 million gallons of highly toxic, North Slope crude oil were released into the Sound when Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef soon after departing from Valdez, the southern terminal of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, on the morning of March 24, 1989. And according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s 20th anniversary report, as of 2009, approximately 21,000 gallons of oil remain.

The Blackstone Bay area, where we are kayaking, wasn’t oiled. If we dig holes on the beaches, we won’t strike pools of oil, as you might on places like Perry Island, farther from shore. But that’s not to say that the birds, fish and mammals—highly migratory and capable of traveling between the spill zone and healthier bays—aren’t impacted.

Richard Steiner, a marine conservation specialist based in Anchorage, believes people’s tendency to focus on oil coming ashore is misguided. “You have to sort of drill down deeper to the way the ecosystem works, the population levels, to really get a sense,” he says.


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